As the sun rose over Rektor, the members of Hawk squadron were guided from their dormitories to the barracks dining hall, where they were treated to a hearty breakfast almost as lavish as the feast the night before. Once they had all eaten their fill they were led outside to the exercise yard by an usher, who introduced them one by one to the squad commanders that would be marching with them to Halgorn.
Paldar was surprised to find that apart from the commanders themselves, all the new recruits had been enlisted against their will. He wanted to protest about how unfair this seemed but knowing his objections would fall on deaf ears, he chose to remain silent.
There seemed to be an endless number of people waiting to greet the newcomers and Paldar was growing increasingly concerned that he may not have a moment to himself before they were due to leave the city again.
His fears were allayed, however, when the introductions finally came to an end and his squad were given leave. Most of the men went straight to the nearest tavern but Paldar made his excuses, claiming that his injury was giving him grief and he wanted to go straight to bed for a rest.
Once he had broken away from the other men he left the barracks and made his way to the river Rek, then followed the riverbank for half a mile until he reached the east of the city. One of his uncle’s friends ran a pub called the Lawrum Inn and as soon as it came into sight he broke into a run, steadying his left arm with his right to ease the pain in his injured shoulder.
The pub sat on the bank of the river and as he approached he was surprised to see an enormous wooden wheel protruding from the side of the building, turning slowly as the water rushed along beneath it.
Paying it little heed, he went straight to the back door and entered cautiously. The storeroom was dim and empty but the trapdoor to the cellar was open and he could hear music playing below him.
‘Hello? Gurta?’ he called, then waited for a response. When none came, he crossed the room and peered around the doorframe into the tavern beyond. The room was empty and there was no fire burning in the hearth, so he returned to the storeroom and began to descend the broad stairs leading down into the cellar.
The underground room was enormous and had been lit by several candles that hung on the brick pillars interspersed throughout the room. In the far corner was another trapdoor, through which a warm orange glow was emanating. Why is there a fire this far underground?
He walked across the room, every footstep echoing loudly off the walls and betraying his presence. When he was about halfway across the room he saw someone climbing out of the trapdoor. The man jumped, clearly surprised to see him. After a second or two, Paldar recognised the newcomer.
‘Branga? Is that you?’
‘Paldar! What on earth are you doing here?’ Branga ran to him and embraced him, pulling away when his friend winced in pain.
‘What’s wrong? Are you injured?’
Paldar nodded gravely. ‘I almost died. But they still ordered me to ride all the way home. Is my Uncle Raglyn here?’
‘He’s downstairs,’ Branga replied. ‘I’ll take you to him.’
Branga helped him down the ladder into a narrow corridor with a wall-to-wall rug covering the floor, then led him to the end of the hallway and ushered him down a narrow flight of stairs.
Paldar was amazed at what he saw. The room he found himself in was as bright as day, even though it was three floors below ground level. The music was loud here although Paldar couldn’t see who was playing it.
Around a table sat Gurta, his Uncle Raglyn, a woman and an old man he’d never met. They were playing cards. Gurta’s halfwit brother was nearby, playing with coloured balls that looked like polished stones. He and a small boy were taking it in turns to roll them across a green felt-covered table to each other. Every now and then, one of the balls would roll into a corner and disappear down a hole.
‘Uncle!’ Paldar called as he saw the aging politician. Raglyn looked up, and seeing Paldar he jumped out of his seat and ran over to the lad.
‘Paldar! My boy, what are you doing here? I thought you were on the front line, in Delcia or Poranthia or somewhere!’
‘I was, I was, but my squad’s been sent here to lead the reinforcements to Halgorn. What is this place? Where did these strange lanterns come from?’
‘All in good time. Tell me about Halgorn? Is that the next battleground? We haven’t had any news from the front line in days.’ Raglyn gestured for Paldar to sit down, then poured him a drink from a barrel of ale that Gurta had brought downstairs earlier.
‘Not just the next battle; the final battle, or so we’re led to believe. That’s where all the Rejk armies have gathered for their last stand. But I escaped the army and came here.’
At the word ‘escape’, Raglyn raised his eyebrows and waited for the boy to continue.
‘Uncle, I hate the army. I’m bullied and picked on, teased and tormented. And I can’t fight. I’m awful with a sword; I was almost killed in the last fight before I came back here.’
‘Don’t they know you’re here? You’d better get back before they notice you’re missing – they don’t take kindly to deserters.’
‘Uncle, I’m not going back. Ever. Can’t I hide here, with you?’
Before Raglyn could come up with an answer, Gurta jumped in. ’Of course you can stay ’ere, boy. They won’t find you ’ere, don’t you worry about that.
Outside, a man in a cloak stood in the shade of the trees, watching the back door of the Lawrum Inn. He’d followed Paldar here from the barracks; the little runt had run away as soon as he’d had the chance, just as Bryce had said. Now he would report back to the sergeant and claim the reward offered to any soldier who tracked down a deserter.
With a smirk, he turned on his heel and strode away through the trees.
Once Ryden, Melca and Allisad had entered Rektor, Allisad had led them towards the east of the city. It was much more run-down here than in the main streets they’d seen earlier and Allisad explained that most political renegades and other outcasts hid in this part of the city, where even the police rarely went.
They stopped on the bank of the river Rek to allow their horses to drink, however they chose not to refill their own canteens with the foul-smelling dirty water that rushed past.
‘So what now?’ Melca asked sullenly. Whilst he was glad that Allisad hadn’t betrayed them at the gate, the act of integrity had proved him wrong and that had left him in a filthy mood.
‘Well here’s the fun bit,’ Allisad stated. ‘Somewhere within a mile radius of us, we will undoubtedly find the R.L. and then we can ask for their assistance. However, knowing exactly where to find them is another matter.’
‘So what do you expect us to do then?’ Melca snapped. ‘You just bring us here and then tell us to search every building for the next mile, is that it?’
Ryden jumped in. ‘Mel, it’s not Alli’s fault. It was our idea to come here; we knew it wouldn’t be easy. He’s helped us to get this far and we should be grateful.’
‘We still don’t know anything about the R.L.’ Melca argued. ’We don’t know whether they’ll help us. We don’t even know if they’ll be able to help us. If their organisation is meant to be so secret, how do you even know about them?’
‘A boy in my squad told me about them when I was in the army. He said they were a secret brotherhood who would fight for the people and bring the war-mongers in Rektor tumbling from their pedestals. I told him that if he spoke of them again he would be put to death.’
‘So you oppose them?’ Melca was stunned.
‘No, but I did. At least, I made sure everyone thought I did, otherwise I would have suffered the same fate.’
‘Well that’s neither here nor there,’ Ryden interrupted. ‘We just need to find them, and quickly. If the watchman was telling the truth, the rest of the army leaves tomorrow and we need to find the king’s confidant before that happens.’
‘I don’t believe it!’ Allisad whispered. ‘That’s him!’
Ryden followed his gaze and saw a young man, not much older than himself, walking quickly along the opposite bank. ‘That can’t be him, Alli. The guy we’re looking for was a friend of my father’s; he’ll certainly be older than you.’
‘No, that’s the boy who told me about the R.L.’ Allisad gave an incredulous laugh. ‘I thought he’d be on the front line! Let’s see where he’s going.’
Quickly gathering up Dave’s reins, he led the horse through the trees, keeping at least fifteen feet from the riverbank to remain inconspicuous. Ryden and Melca did the same.
The boy walked along close to the river for several minutes and then began to run. His arms were wrapped around his body and he had a strange, lopsided run that gave the impression he was using someone else’s body and hadn’t got used to it yet.
He came upon a short, stout building that had bulging walls and a peculiar waterwheel protruding into the river. The boy ran to a small wooden door and stopped, then eased the door open and stepped inside.
Allisad smiled broadly. ‘This could be it, lads. This could be the place we’re looking for. Let’s find somewhere to leave the horses and then investigate.’
As they turned to move deeper into the trees, Melca stopped. ‘Ry,’ he hissed, then waited for his friend to react. ‘I think I saw someone in the trees on the other side of the river.’
Ryden looked and saw nothing. ‘You’re imagining it, Mel.’
‘Honestly! There was someone there in a black cloak and now they’ve gone.’
Ryden tutted. ‘All right Mel, perhaps someone was there. But they’ve gone now so don’t worry about it. Come on.’
They followed Allisad until they came to a small clearing surrounded by thick briars and undergrowth. ‘This will do nicely,’ Allisad stated and began to tie Dave’s reins to a tree. Dave gave him a disgusted look but said nothing.
Once Storm and Rusty were tethered alongside the taller horse, the three men walked back to the river and looked for a suitable place to cross. A few hundred yards away they found a tree that had fallen onto the opposite bank, creating a rudimentary bridge.
Scrambling over to the other side, they made their way back to the old building and hesitated when they reached the small door.
Ryden took a last look around and then went inside, followed by Melca and Allisad.
As Ryden entered the small stone room, it took a moment or two for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. There were no windows in the room and the only light came from the cracks above and below the door they had just closed and from the doorway into the next room.
‘Hello?’ Ryden called, his voice sounding hollow and peculiar as it echoed from the bare walls. ‘Is anyone here?’
A moment later, a head popped up from a trapdoor that Ryden hadn’t noticed on the far side of the room. It belonged to a balding middle-aged man who followed it up into the room.
‘Sorry lads, we’re closed. And next time, use the front door, eh?’
Melca apologised and turned to leave.
‘Actually, perhaps you can help us,’ Ryden said. We’re looking for...’ he glanced around surreptitiously and lowered his voice, ‘...the R.L.?’
The man started, then said quickly, ‘I’m afraid I dunno what you mean, mate.’
‘Never mind,’ Allisad said. ‘But we’re also looking for our friend Paldar; he said he’d be here.’
The man now looked torn. He kept glancing back at the trapdoor and rubbing his hands together nervously. ‘Paldar, eh?’ Don’t think the name rings a bell. I’ll see if my brother knows him.’
Gurta disappeared back down the trapdoor and Ryden heard him running in the basement below. A minute later he reappeared. ‘I don’t think we know anyone called Paldar,’ he stated, ‘and if we did then he wouldn’t have asked anyone to meet him here.’
‘Look,’ Ryden said, annoyed now, ‘we’ve come a long way to find you because we want to help the R.L. in their cause.’
‘What cause?’ Gurta pressed.
‘We want to end the war with Rejkland. We know what we need to accomplish but we can’t do it alone. Are you going to help us or not?’
‘Very well,’ Gurta relented. ‘Come downstairs and I’ll introduce you to the other members of the movement.’
Once the introductions had been made and Balenor had answered numerous questions about lektrizdi, the group sat down around a large table and began to talk.
‘So this is the headquarters of the mysterious R.L. then?’ Ryden began. ‘There’s not a lot of space in here; how many people are in the organisation?’
‘Well until a week ago there were four,’ Raglyn responded. ‘But membership seems to be growing fast!’
‘So this is it?’ Allisad asked, taken aback. ‘I thought there would be dozens of you.’
‘Perhaps I exaggerated a little,’ Paldar blushed. ‘You’re the last person I expected to see here, sir. Why did you leave the army?’
Allisad shook his head. ‘That’s a question for another day, I’m afraid. We don’t have a lot of time and I don’t want to spend it discussing my career choices.’
His response did nothing to alleviate the tension. Allisad’s reputation preceded him and Senti was extremely suspicious of his motives. ‘You can’t just come in here and act like you’re a big hero, so you can’t,’ she fumed. ‘Sure, you’ve done more damage than almost every man in that army.’
‘I’m not saying I’m a hero,’ Allisad replied. ’I’m not claiming to be ‘holier than thou’. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of but that’s in the past. Allisad the Hunter is no more. I am here now because Lazarus is out of control and has to be stopped.’
‘Hear hear,’ Branga called. ’But the question is how do we stop him?’
‘There’s a man in Rektor who can,’ Ryden said. ‘He is a close friend of the king’s and if we can find him then I’m sure he will help us.’
‘Who’s that?’ Gurta asked.
‘His name is Aranin.’
Most of the people around the table shrugged, not recognising the name. Raglyn, however, turned as white as a sheet.
‘Aranin?’ he whispered.
Melca picked up on the reaction immediately. ‘What do you know about him?’ he demanded.
‘Aranin was indeed a trusted advisor to the king,’ Raglyn said, ‘however he fell from favour when Demus Lazarus became more prominent in the army.’
‘Why?’ Ryden asked. ‘What happened?’
‘Demus spent a lot of time with King Garro; he was sycophantic toward him and told him that he thought of him as a father,’ Raglyn began. ’Soon the king began to think of Demus as a son as well and it wasn’t long before he promoted the young man to general. In my opinion, Lazarus took advantage of the king’s favour on several occasions; but the most memorable incident came when they began to discuss war.
’General Lazarus preyed on the king’s insecurities regarding international relations. He kept sowing the seeds of paranoia, suggesting that Rejkland were building up an invasion force. It sounds ridiculous now but at the time he was very convincing. I was still a senior minister at the time but I didn’t have the king’s ear as he did, nor enough influence in parliament to contest the general’s claims.
’The only man who I thought could have shown the king sense was his friend, Aranin. But Lazarus was already one step ahead. He had already concocted a story that Aranin was in league with Rejk spies and would try to manipulate King Garro. As a result, when Aranin did come forward to try to reassure the king he was instantly arrested for treason.
‘That was three years ago. Shortly afterwards General Lazarus, then unopposed, led his army to Valihall and the war began.’
Raglyn fell silent. After a moment, Ryden asked the question on everyone’s lips. ‘So what happened to Aranin? Was he executed?’
The politician shrugged. ’I couldn’t say. But many who are convicted of treason are imprisoned below Rektor Castle. The prison guards call those incarcerated there the forsaken, because they are usually forgotten about or assumed dead, even though they may survive for years down there.’
’I’ve ‘eard stories about them.’ Gurta interjected. ’It’s an ’orrible thought, living like that with no ‘ope of getting out.’
‘I don’t doubt that many of them deserve it,’ Allisad retorted.
‘And don’t you tink you’re one o’ them?’ Senti snapped. ‘How many innocent lives have you taken?’
‘I don’t think that’s important right now,’ Balenor intervened. ‘The fact is, our man could be down there and if he’s been wrongly convicted then that’s a terrible price to pay. Raglyn, do you think Aranin really was in league with Rejk forces?’
Ryden sank into his chair. He knew his father had held secret meetings with Aranin, as had Carrick and several others. Perhaps that was the reason Aranin had been imprisoned. Yet the Network, as Carrick had called it, was established to keep the peace rather than to cause a war.
‘No,’ Raglyn said to Balenor. ‘I don’t think he meant any ill will to King Rogar or to Kappland. He had served loyally for too many years.’
Branga, who until now had been silently absorbing the exchange, chose this moment to speak up. ‘If this man has been wrongly imprisoned and if he really can end this war, then I think it’s up to us to get him out.’
‘Too right,’ Gurta agreed.
‘I’m with you as well,’ Senti concurred.
‘As am I,’ Raglyn said. ‘But the question is; who should we write a letter to?’
After several minutes and with input from both Raglyn and Allisad, Ryden was able to sketch a basic layout of the keep in the centre of Rektor Castle. The entrance to the dungeons was at the end of a long, narrow corridor that ran along behind the kitchens, which were situated at the back of the keep on the ground floor. Other than a few chefs, the only people likely to use the corridor were the jailers.
There was no way of knowing how many guards would be underground but according to Allisad there were unlikely to be more than two on the ground floor of the keep. The challenge would be getting inside the castle walls, first and foremost, then subsequently trying to get inside the keep itself.
As they began to devise a plan, Balenor sat in the next room tinkering with a device that he said would aid them in their mission. Every now and then Ryden would hear a cheer or a curse drift through and at one point he saw a bright flash that was closely followed by a quiet whimper.
Paldar had opted to stay at the inn, knowing how risky it would be for a deserter to go out onto the streets of Rektor. He watched with interest as the others put together their plan; Senti too remained fairly quiet, keeping her eyes fixed on Allisad.
Gurta, on the other hand, was extremely outspoken and kept proposing wildly unfeasible ideas such as digging a tunnel from outside the castle walls and burrowing for two hundred yards until they reached the dungeons.
Once the group had developed a plan that they each understood and felt stood a reasonable chance of success, they waited until nightfall and left the tavern in the direction of Rektor Castle.
The shadow-man lay silent in the dank, fetid tomb that cocooned him. He recalled a day, an eternity ago, when a rat had entered his world of stone. It was the happiest moment of his incarceration. It had taken him several minutes to capture the beast but only a second to break its tiny neck. He had made the meal last for as long as he could, savouring the feast as though it were roast venison.
Now in his waking dreams he imagined that a family of rats entered the dungeon, falling prey to him one by one. As he grew closer to death his delirium tightened its hold on him, so that he was never truly awake any more; merely conscious. His hallucinations entertained him, sheltering him from reality.
He wondered whether the world outside this hellhole still existed. Perhaps the sun had died. Perhaps the seas had dried up. Perhaps the only surviving humans were him and the brutal guard that fed him.
He laughed; a shrill, wavering laugh that reverberated off the walls, undulating and distorting as it worked its way back into his ears.
What will become of me? Will my flesh rot away whilst I sit here, praying for salvation? Why is this happening to me?
He stretched himself from corner to corner across the tiny cell floor and wailed hysterically until sleep took him.
Thirty feet above him, ten cloaked figures stood outside the walls of Rektor Castle, talking in hushed voices. The R.L. were about to embark on their first mission.
‘Does everyone understand what’s required of them?’ Raglyn whispered. It was a warm night but he was shivering uncontrollably. His question was met with nine nods.
‘Good,’ he continued. ‘Because once we get through this gate,’ he pointed to the servant’s gate twenty feet away, ‘we will only have a short time to complete our task before the alarm is raised. If we get split up, we will rendezvous at the tavern. Understood?’
‘What’s rondy-voo?’ Tanka asked in a loud voice. He was hushed immediately by his fellow activists.
’It means that if you get lost, you stay quiet and sneak ‘ome,’ his brother hissed.
‘Right,’ Raglyn asserted, ‘let’s go.’
Balenor hugged John tightly and then ushered him forward towards the gate. The first part of the plan came down to him and him alone to complete. The boy crept up to the cold iron bars and peered through. Once he was certain there was no one in sight, he carefully lay on his back at the foot of the wall. The ground beneath the gate had been worn into a rut where it had been used as a tradesman’s entrance for decades.
John carefully slid himself beneath the heavy metalwork, walking his shoulders along the ground. When his upper body was clear of the gate, he placed his hands on the ground on either side of him and hauled his legs through.
As he stood up he saw a small wooden hut not ten feet from the entrance. The door was ajar and it was pitch black inside. The shack was so small that there was barely enough room for two men to stand inside and close the door. He crept over and to his relief found it uninhabited.
He pulled the door open and winced as it creaked loudly. He looked around frantically but the night was still. He was alone.
Tiptoeing into the hut, he saw two small wooden shelves filled with unknown items. Next to the door, a large nail had been hammered into the wall. Hung on the nail was a heavy set of iron keys.
Grabbing the keys, he dashed outside and handed them through the railings to Raglyn. The old man quickly tried a key in the lock but to no avail. He fumbled a second key into the lock and still the bolt wouldn’t shift.
John began to worry that this was the wrong set of keys, however his mind was put to rest a moment later when the third key turned with a grinding noise and the bolt slid back.
Raglyn swung the gate open carefully and one by one the revolutionaries crept into the castle grounds. At the centre of the well-kept lawn and gardens was the enormous stone keep that could be seen from every street in Rektor.
Raglyn led the group down a dirt track that took them around behind the keep to a small door in the east wing of the building. Senti removed her cloak, beneath which she was wearing a white blouse and black skirt. The rest of the group hid out of sight from the door. Senti undid a couple of buttons on her blouse then knocked on the door gently.
She waited. After what seemed like hours, she became impatient and knocked again. A few moments later, the door slowly swung open and a burly guard stood in the doorway. He frowned.
‘Yes?’ he said at last.
‘Oh great, tanks for answerin’ the door. I’m the new girl here, I’m meant to start work in the kitchens tonight and I’m going t’be in terrible trouble. See, I was out in the garden admiring those beautiful roses and when I was about to come in to start me shift I realised I’d lost me mother’s ring. She gave it to me, y’know, and told me to take such good care of it. And sure, I thought I had but now I don’t know where it is. I can’t start work until I’ve found it, but the chef’s goin’ t’be awful cross with me if I’m not there soon. Would you be a darlin’ and help me look for it? I’m so scared to be out here on my own in the dark.’
‘Sorry, miss; I’d like to help but I can’t leave my post. Why don’t you look for it in the morning?’ As the guard spoke, a second man appeared next to him in the doorway, wearing the same uniform.
‘Well if you won’t help the lady, Burt, then I certainly will.’ A smile appeared on the second man’s face as he looked Senti up and down. ‘We can’t have you out here on your own in the dead of night now, can we?’ He began to step outside.
‘Look, you have to stay here too, Kam. Tell you what, you stay here and I’ll go; I’m the officer, after all.’
‘We’ll both go then, Burt. Two heads are better than one, as they say.’
The two men bundled out of the doorway, eager to get acquainted with the young lady who stood before them. But before they had taken more than three steps outside, Gurta and Tanka reared up behind them and grabbed them around the necks, squeezing until they passed out.
They dragged the guards behind a row of hedges, where Melca and Branga quickly undressed them and donned their uniforms. The two young men marched back to the keep and cautiously entered, keeping their eyes peeled for any other servants of the castle. Seeing no one, Melca returned to the door and beckoned to his comrades.
Raglyn, Ryden, Allisad and Balenor entered the keep, leaving John with Senti, who had promised to look after him. Gurta and Tanka remained by the prone guards, who lay spread-eagled in the flowerbeds in their underwear.
Raglyn pulled the sketch map from his pocket and unfolded it, checking his bearings. Once he’d established where they were, he led the others down a long corridor and sent Melca and Branga forward to check that the coast was clear.
The corridor opened out into a small hall with more corridors shooting off in all directions. Two chairs sat at one side of the room, next to a table upon which a card game was in progress. Clearly they had interrupted the guards during a game of poker.
Raglyn pointed towards a low arch leading to a dingy, narrow passageway. ‘The dungeons are down there,’ he whispered, ‘but I don’t know how well-guarded they will be.’
Allisad drew a knife from his belt. ‘That doesn’t worry me,’ he replied in an undertone.